Quest for subs we don't need
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Quest for subs we don't need

The Royal Thai Navy has increased its military power and influence considerably over the past few decades. Once consigned to the unofficial title of third military arm after the army and air force, the navy has made considerable progress.

It has acquired ships and weapons that are more than threats to any potential enemy approaching Thailand. It also has directly participated in combat situations thousands of kilometres from home, most recently in the international effort to track, deter and, if necessary, repel Somali pirates.

While the navy is now a professional and well-armed part of the national defence force, the admirals are dissatisfied. For years, they have sought funds and authorisation to buy submarines.

This desire has found little support outside the navy, with both the public and politicians generally opposed.

Now, the navy says it has devised a plan that will lead to a submarine squadron within 10 years.

The brains behind the plan is Panu Punyavirocha, commander of the navy's submarine squadron.

For those who are unaware, the actual squadron does not yet exist, but the navy has spent hundreds of millions of baht to create the infrastructure in which it would be based.

According to the admiral, a 200-million-baht simulator _ the Submarine Command Team Trainer _ is almost ready for use. The submarine squadron headquarters at Sattahip Naval Base will be ready for action next year, at a cost of 540 million baht.

Of course, there is one problem with the headquarters, and that is a lack of submarines. Rear Adm Panu said that is only a technicality. The navy's 10-year plan will be submitted according to Defence Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's order for each service to compile what is, essentially, a wish list of equipment. Submarines, Rear Adm Panu said, will be on the list.

This novel and bureaucratic method of obtaining equipment rejected many times in the past needs a thorough review by Ms Yingluck and others, both military experts and ministerial masters.

The case for a Thai submarine fleet is no stronger now that it was in the past. The Gulf of Thailand is too shallow for effective operations, and the Indian Ocean coastline is small. There is also the problem of a lack of viable enemies.

Rear Adm Panu, in an interview last week with this newspaper, said territorial disputes in the South China Sea could escalate.

This could explain why Vietnam and Indonesia feel threatened enough to obtain submarines in the event of Chinese hostility. But these are not Thai disputes and as such cannot explain the obsession the Thai navy has with submarines.

The last Democrat-led government under Abhisit Vejjajiva approved a strange request by the navy to buy six used German U-boats. Fortunately, that deal got a second look and was rejected when Pheu Thai ousted the Democrats in 2011.

Defence is a serious matter, and our armed forces deserve to have the best hardware. Sometimes, military men can make mistakes in the heat of the moment. There is no better illustration than the almost permanently moored carrier HMTS Chakri Naruebet, which plays no direct role in national security.

The aircraft carrier, in emergencies, has played a role in disaster relief. But submarines are not even valuable for that. The navy may put a squadron of submarines on its 10-year wish list. If so, that request should come under careful scrutiny by both defence experts and politicians.

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